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Table of Contents

  • What was the Aztec Calendar?
  • What Year Is It Now?
  • Why So Complicated?
  • Wrapping Up

The Aztec or Mexica calendar is one of several prominent Mesoamerican calendars. However, as the Aztec empire was in its heyday at the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Aztec calendar has remained one of the two most famous calendrical systems, together with the Mayan calendar.

But what exactly is the Aztec calendar? How sophisticated was it and how accurate was it compared to the Gregorian and other European and Asian calendars? This article aims to answer these questions.

What was the Aztec Calendar?

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The Aztec calendar was based on other Mesoamerican calendars that had come before it and, therefore, it had a similar structure to them. What makes these calendrical systems special is that they are technically a combination of two cycles.

  • The first, called Xiuhpōhualli or year count was a standard and practical seasons-based cycle and consisted of 365 days – almost identical to the European Gregorian calendar.
  • The second, called Tōnalpōhualli or day count was a religious day cycle made of 260 days, each dedicated to a specific god. It informed the rituals of the Aztec people.

Together, Xiuhpōhualli and Tōnalpōhualli cycles formed the Aztec calendar. In essence, the Aztec people had two calendar years – one “scientific” calendar based on the seasons and the agricultural needs of the people, and one religious calendar that progressed independently of the first.

So, for example, while in the Gregorian calendar specific religious holidays always fall on the exact same day of the year (Christmas on the 25th of December, Halloween on the 31st of October, and so on), in the Aztec calendar the religious cycle isn’t tied to the seasonal/agricultural cycle – the 365 days of the latter would cycle on independently from the 260 days of the former.

The only way in which the two were tied was that they would catch up to each other and restart every 52 years. That’s why the Aztec “century”, or Xiuhmolpilli consisted of 52 years. This period also had a major significance for the Aztec religion, as every 52 years the world could end if the Aztec hadn’t “fed” the sun god Huitzilopochtli with enough human sacrifices.

Xiuhpōhualli – The Agricultural Aspect of The Aztec Calendar

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The Aztec year (xihuitl) count (pōhualli) cycle, or Xiuhpōhualli, is similar to most seasonal calendars in that it consists of 365 days. However, the Aztecs likely took that from other Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya, as they had established their calendars long before the Aztecs migrated into central Mexico from the north.

Regardless, one of the several things that differentiated the Xiuhpōhualli cycle from European calendars is that 360 of its 365 days are placed in 18 months, or veintena, each 20-days long. The last 5 days of the year were left “unnamed” (nēmontēmi) days. Those were considered unlucky as they weren’t dedicated to (or protected by) any particular deity.

Unfortunately, the exact Gregorian dates of each Aztec month aren’t clear. We know what the names and symbols of each month were, but historians disagree on when exactly they started. The two leading theories are established by the two Christian friars, Bernardino de Sahagún and Diego Durán.

According to Durán, the first Aztec month (Atlcahualo, Cuauhitlehua) started on March 1 and lasted till March 20. According to Sahagún Atlcahualo, Cuauhitlehua started on February 2 and ended on February 21. Other scholars have suggested that the Aztec year started on the vernal equinox or Spring solar equinox which falls on March 20.

Regardless of who’s right, these are the 18 Aztec months of the Xiuhpōhualli cycle:

  1. Atlcahualo, Cuauhitlehua – Ceasing of Water, Rising Trees
  2. Tlacaxipehualiztli – Rites of Fertility; Xipe-Totec (“the flayed one”)
  3. Tozoztontli – Lesser Perforation
  4. Huey Tozoztli – Greater Perforation
  5. Tōxcatl – Dryness
  6. Etzalcualiztli – Eating Maize and Beans
  7. Tecuilhuitontli – Lesser Feast for the Revered Ones
  8. Huey Tecuilhuitl – Greater Feast for the Revered Ones
  9. Tlaxochimaco, Miccailhuitontli – Bestowal or Birth of Flowers, Feast to the Revered Deceased
  10. Xócotl huetzi, Huey Miccailhuitl – Feast to the Greatly Revered Deceased
  11. Ochpaniztli – Sweeping and Cleaning
  12. Teotleco – Return of the Gods
  13. Tepeilhuitl – Feast for the Mountains
  14. Quecholli – Precious Feather
  15. Pānquetzaliztli – Raising the Banners
  16. Atemoztli – Descent of the Water
  17. Tititl – Stretching for Growth
  18. Izcalli – Encouragement for the Land & People

18b. Nēmontēmi – The unlucky period of 5 unnamed days

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This cycle of 18 months had proved very useful in governing the day-to-day life of the Aztec people, their agriculture, and every non-religious aspect of their lives.

As for how the Aztec people accounted for the “leap day” in the Gregorian calendar – it seems that they didn’t. Instead, their new year just always started at the same time of the same day, likely the vernal equinox.

The 5 nēmontēmi days were likely just five days and six hours each.

Tōnalpōhualli – the Sacred Aspect of The Aztec Calendar

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The Tōnalpōhualli, or day count cycle of the Aztec calendar, was made of 260 days. This cycle didn’t have any relation to the seasonal change of the planet. Instead, the Tōnalpōhualli had a more religious and symbolic significance.

Each 260-day cycle consisted of 13 trecena, or “weeks/months”, with each of them being 20 days long. Each of those 20 days had a name of a specific natural element, object, or animal which every trecena was marked by a number from 1 to 13.

The 20 days were named as such:

  • Cipactli – Crocodile
  • Ehēcatl – Wind
  • Calli – House
  • Cuetzpalin – Lizard
  • Cōātl – Snake
  • Miquiztli – Death
  • Mazātl – Deer
  • Tōchtli – Rabbit
  • Ātl – Water
  • Itzcuīntli – Dog
  • Ozomahtli – Monkey
  • Malīnalli – Grass
  • Ācatl – Reed
  • Ocēlōtl – Jaguar or Ocelot
  • Cuāuhtli – Eagle
  • Cōzcacuāuhtli – Vulture
  • Ōlīn – Earthquake
  • Tecpatl – Flint
  • Quiyahuitl – Rain
  • Xōchitl – Flower

Each of the 20 days would also have its own symbol to represent it. The Quiyahuitl/Rain symbol would be that of the Aztec rain god Tlāloc, for example, while the Itzcuīntli/Dog day would be depicted as the head of a dog.

In the same way, each day indicated a certain direction of the world too. Cipactli/Crocodile would be east, Ehēcatl/Wind would be north, Calli/House – west, and Cuetzpalin/Lizard – south. From there, the next 16 days would cycle the same way. These directions would also be related to the Nine Lords or Gods of Night in Aztec Astrology:

  1. Xiuhtecuhtli (lord of fire) – Center
  2. Itztli (sacrificial knife god) – East
  3. Pilzintecuhtli (sun god) – East
  4. Cinteotl (maize god) – South
  5. Mictlantecuhtli (god of death) – South
  6. Chalchiuhtlicue (water goddess) – West
  7. Tlazolteotl (goddess of filth) – West
  8. Tepeyollotl (jaguar god) – North
  9. Tlaloc (rain god) – North

Once the first 20 days of the Tōnalpōhualli would pass, that would be the end of the first trecena. Then, the second trecena would start and the days in it would be marked with the number two. So, the 5th day of the Tōnalpōhualli year was 1 Cōātl while the 25th day of the year was 2 Cōātl because it belonged to the second trecena.

Each of the 13 trecenas was also dedicated to and protected by a specific Aztec deity, with quite a few of them doubling from the previous count of the Nine Gods of Night. The 13 trecenas are devoted to the following gods:

  1. Xiuhtecuhtli
  2. Tlaltecuhtli
  3. Chalchiuhtlicue
  4. Tonatiuh
  5. Tlazolteotl
  6. Mictlantecuhtli
  7. Cinteotl
  8. Tlaloc
  9. Quetzalcoatl
  10. Tezcatlipoca
  11. Chalmacatecuhtli
  12. Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli
  13. Citlalincue

Xiuhmolpilli – The Aztec 52-year “Century”

The widely used name for the Aztec century is Xiuhmolpilli. However, the more accurate term in the native Aztec language of Nahuatl was Xiuhnelpilli.

Regardless of how we choose to call it, an Aztec century had 52 Xiuhpōhualli (365-day) cycles and 73 Tōnalpōhualli (260-day) cycles. The reason was strictly mathematical – the two calendars would re-align again after that many cycles. If, by the end of the century, the Aztec people hadn’t sacrificed enough people to the war god Huitzilopochtli, they believed the world would end.

However, to make matters even more complicated, instead of counting the 52 years with numbers, the Aztecs marked them by a combination of 4 words (tochtli, acati, tecpati, and calli) and 13 numbers (from 1 to 13).

So, the first year of each century would be called 1 tochtli, the second – 2 acati, the third – 3 tecpati, the fourth – 4 calli, the fifth – 5 tochtli, and so on till 13. However, the fourteenth year would be called 1 acati because thirteen doesn’t divide perfectly into four. The fifteenth year would be 2 tecpati, the sixteenth – 3 calli, the seventeenth – 4 tochtli, and so on.

Eventually, the combination of four words and 13 numbers would realign again and a second 52-year Xiuhmolpilli would begin.

What Year Is It Now?

If you’re curious, as of the writing of this text, we are in the year 9 calli (2021), near the end of the current Xiuhmolpilli/century. 2022 would be 10 tochtli, 2023 – 11 acati, 2024 – 12 tecpati, 2025 – 13 calli.

2026 would be the start of a new Xiuhmolpilli/century and will be called 1 tochtli again, provided that we’ve sacrificed enough blood to the war god Huitzilopochtli.

This site tells you what Aztec day it is today, along with all the relevant information for each day.

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Why So Complicated?

As for why this is so convoluted and why the Aztecs (and other Mesoamerican cultures) even bothered with two separate calendrical cycles – we don’t really know.

Presumably, they had the more symbolic and religious Tōnalpōhualli 260-day calendar first before they invented the more astronomically correct Xiuhpōhualli 365-day cycle. Then, instead of disposing of the former cycle, they decided to use both at the same time, the old one for the older religious practices, and the new one for all practical matters such as farming, hunting, and foraging, and so on.

Wrapping Up

The Aztec calendar continues to enthrall those interested in history. The image of the calendar is used in jewelry, fashion, tattoos, home décor and more. It’s one of the most fascinating legacies left behind by the Aztecs.

FAQs

Why was the Aztec calendar important? ›

Aztec Calendar

One calendar was used for tracking religious ceremonies and festivals. This calendar was called the tonalpohualli which means "day count". It was sacred to the Aztecs and was very important as it divided time equally among the various gods and kept the universe in balance. The calendar had 260 days.

What symbols were used in the Aztec calendar? ›

The calendar was broken down into units (sometimes referred to as trecenas) of 20 days with each day having its own name and symbol:
  • cipactli – crocodile.
  • ehecatl – wind.
  • calli – house.
  • cuetzpalin – lizard.
  • coatl – snake.
  • miquiztli – death.
  • mazatl – deer.
  • tochtli – rabbit.

Why was the sun calendar so important to the Aztecs? ›

In Aztec culture, the movement of the sun was used to foretell future events. Not only could Tonatiuh's course be tracked to predict weather patterns and astronomical cycles, but they also believed that they could calculate the end of the world.

What does the Aztec Calendar Stone represent? ›

The Aztec Sun Stone (or Calendar Stone) depicts the five consecutive worlds of the sun from Aztec mythology. The stone is not, therefore, in any sense a functioning calendar, but rather it is an elaborately carved solar disk, which for the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures represented rulership.

What is the purpose of the calendar? ›

Calendars are useful tools for keeping track of upcoming meetings, deadlines, and milestones. They can help you visualize your schedule and remind you of important events, such as holidays and vacation time.

What was the original purpose of the calendar? ›

Farming was a big reason why calendars were invented. The change in seasons was important since it would affect the livelihood of livestock and crops. This could make the difference between life or death for ancient civilizations!

What are the Aztec symbol used for? ›

The Aztecs also used symbols to express perceptions and experiences of reality. The Aztecs, like the other Mesoamerican cultures surrounding them, loved symbols of their gods, animals and common items around them. Each day in the ritual 260-day calendar, for example, is represented by a number and a symbol.

What was the symbol of the Aztecs? ›

The national emblem is an eagle holding a snake in its beak. The eagle stands on a nopal (cactus plant). The emblem dates back to the time of the Aztecs coming to the Valley of Mexico, and is based on the legend of the founding of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.

What is the main Aztec symbol? ›

One of the most famous divine symbols in Aztec culture and mythology is that of the Feathered Serpent.

What is the Aztec calendar called? ›

The Aztec sun stone, also called the calendar stone, is on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The calendar consists of a 365-day calendar cycle called xiuhpōhualli (year count) and a 260-day ritual cycle called tōnalpōhualli (day count).

How do you use the Aztec calendar? ›

In an Aztec 52 year cycle there were four counts of thirteen years each. So the four knots equal a total sacred count of 52 years. The Aztec glyphs contained in the ring around the four past suns represent the 20 months of the year. Each month had 13 days which equaled the Aztec year of 260 days.

Is the Aztec calendar sacred? ›

The Aztecs used a sacred calendar known as the tonalpohualli or 'counting of the days'. This went back to great antiquity in Mesoamerica, perhaps to the Olmec civilization of the 1st millennium BCE. It formed a 260-day cycle, in all probability originally based on astronomical observations.

Why is the Calendar Stone important? ›

The Aztec Calendar Stone, became a very important national symbol during the Porfirio Diaz era. The Calendar Stone was used in the movement to unify the states of Mexico into a nation. The movement used the history and symbols of the indigenous people, particularly the Aztecs.

How did the Aztec calendar represent their religious beliefs? ›

Calendar. The Aztec religious year was connected mostly to the natural 365-day calendar, the xiuhpohualli ("yearcount"), which followed the agricultural year. Each of the 18 twenty-day months of the religious year had its particular religious festival—most of which were connected to agricultural themes.

What is the Aztec calendar made of? ›

The Aztec Calendar Stone was carved from solidified lava in the late 15th century. It somehow got lost for 300 years and was found in 1790, buried under the zocalo, or central square of Mexico City.

Did the Aztecs create the calendar? ›

Aztec calendar, dating system based on the Mayan calendar and used in the Valley of Mexico before the destruction of the Aztec empire. Like the Mayan calendar, the Aztec calendar consisted of a ritual cycle of 260 days and a 365-day civil cycle.

What were the first calendars based on? ›

In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar ordered a calendar consisting of twelve months based on a solar year. This calendar employed a cycle of three years of 365 days, followed by a year of 366 days (leap year). When first implemented, the "Julian Calendar" also moved the beginning of the year from March 1 to January 1.

How did the calendar get its name? ›

Named to honor Roman dictator Julius Caesar (100 B.C.– 44 B.C.) after his death. In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar made one of his greatest contributions to history: With the help of Sosigenes, he developed the Julian calendar, the precursor to the Gregorian calendar we use today.

What is the Aztec symbol for protection? ›

The feathered serpent is another respected symbol in Aztec mythology, for it was believed to be the main protector of the world and everything that lives on it. With that in mind, the feathered serpent is the symbol of courage, protection, shielding, and love for the world.

How many symbols did the Aztecs have? ›

The Aztec font comes together with a family of 20 symbols from Aztec symbolism.

What is the Aztec symbol for strength? ›

The stick or rod of the Atlatl was usually decorated with the feathers of a serpent. The Atlatl was a prominent weapon and a major symbol of strength for the Aztecs.

What does the sun symbol mean in Aztec? ›

This is a representation of the sun god Huitzilopochtli. Sun worship was a major feature of Aztec religious practices, and Huitzilopochtli was one of the most important deities in their pantheon. He also presided over war, and the Aztecs were a very warlike people who maintained a large and powerful army.

What are some important symbols of Mexico? ›

The national symbols of Mexico are the flag, the coat of arms and the anthem. The flag is a vertical tricolor of green, white, and red. The coat of arms features a golden eagle eating a snake on top of a cactus.

When was the Aztec calendar discovered? ›

The Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol, was buried a few decades after the conquest beneath what is now Mexico City's main plaza, or Zócalo. It was rediscovered in 1790 and mounted on one of the towers of the Catedral metropolitan, where it remained until 1885.

How many calendars did the Aztec use? ›

Two interrelated calendars were used to measure time. The 365-day solar or yearly calendar was closely linked to the seasons and to agricultural activities such as harvesting. It was made up of 18 “months” of 20 days (360). The remaining five days were tacked onto the end of each year and considered very unlucky.

How accurate is Aztec calendar? ›

It turns out that the Aztec calculation of an average 365.2420 days per year is actually closer to the real value of 365.2422 days than the old Julian value of 365.2500 days or even our current Gregorian value of 365.2425 days. The Sun Stone was hand-carved in the 52-year period from 1427 to 1479.

What is the importance of the Mayan calendar? ›

It was used to name individuals, predict the future, decide on auspicious dates for battles, marriages, and so on. Each single day had its omens and associations, and the inexorable march of the 20 days was like a perpetual fortune-telling machine, guiding the destinies of the Maya.

How were the symbols arranged and divided in the Aztec calendar? ›

A ritual calendar of 260 days rotated 20 divine symbols into a "week" with 13 numbered days. After 20 weeks, each sign (associated with a god) had appeared in each of the 13 slots, and the cycle was complete. A secular, agricultural calendar kept pace with the seasons. It had 18 months of 20 days each.

What was the most important Aztec achievement? ›

One of the Aztecs' most remarkable technological achievements was the building of their island city, Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs enlarged the area of the city by creating artificial islands called chinampas. To make a chinampa, they first formed a bed of soil by piling boulders and mud on a mat made of reeds.

Where is the Aztec calendar? ›

Aztec calendar

A circular calendar stone measuring about 12 feet (3.7 metres) in diameter and weighing some 25 tons was uncovered in Mexico City in 1790 and is currently on display in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

How does the stone sun calendar reflect beliefs of the Aztec people? ›

The Aztecs sacrificed a prisoner on the calendar stone on the date 4 Olin, the day they believed the world would end. The day repeats every 260 days in their calendar cycle. With succession of the cycle, another prisoner was sacrificed and the sun rose again the following day.

What did the Aztec do for religion? ›

Key Points. The Aztec religion incorporated deities from multiple cultures into its pantheon. Ritual sacrifice played an essential role in the religious practice of the Aztecs, and they believed it ensured the sun would rise again and crops would grow.

Who found the Aztec calendar? ›

In 1792, two years after the stone's unearthing, Mexican scholar Antonio de León y Gama wrote one of the first treatises on Mexican archaeology on the Aztec calendar and Coatlicue. He correctly identified that some of the glyphs on the stone are the glyphs for the days of the month.

Why are calendars important to early civilizations? ›

The purpose of the calendar is to reckon past or future time, to show how many days until a certain event takes place—the harvest or a religious festival—or how long since something important happened. The earliest calendars must have been strongly influenced by the geographical location of the people who made them.

What was an important symbol for the Mayans? ›

The Maya cross is made from the four types of corn - white, yellow, red, and black - which represent the parts of the human body. The cross also signifies the dawn, the darkness, the water, and the air. This symbol demonstrates the importance of the energies that come from each extreme of the earth.

How does the Aztec calendar work? ›

Like the Mayan calendar, the Aztec calendar consisted of a ritual cycle of 260 days and a 365-day civil cycle. The ritual cycle, or tonalpohualli, contained two smaller cycles, an ordered sequence of 20 named days and a sequence of days numbered from 1 to 13.

What was the purpose of the Mayan and Aztec calendar? ›

The 365-day cycles of the Xiuhpohualli/Haab didn't have any religious or ritualistic use – instead, they were meant for all other practical purposes. As these cycles followed the seasons, both the Aztecs and the Mayans used them for their agriculture, hunting, gathering, and other tasks dependant on the seasons.

What were the most important elements in ancient calendars? ›

Celestial bodies — the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars — have provided us a reference for measuring the passage of time throughout our existence. Ancient civilizations relied upon the apparent motion of these bodies through the sky to determine seasons, months, and years.

What was the Aztec calendar made of? ›

The Aztec Calendar Stone was carved from solidified lava in the late 15th century. It somehow got lost for 300 years and was found in 1790, buried under the zocalo, or central square of Mexico City.

When was the Aztec calendar made? ›

Early scholars initially thought that the stone was carved in the 1470s, though modern research suggests that it was carved some time between 1502 and 1521.

What were the main religious beliefs of the Aztecs? ›

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: The Aztec religion was primarily polytheist. They had different gods, male and female. The sun god was Tonatiuh. There were many deities, and they were revered in monthly festivities with rich offerings.

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